Recently, I’ve had a lot of private correspondence with “in the closet” atheists who asked me various questions about my “out of the closet” status. The last email I received has prompted me to try to put my ideas into a more concrete form. I want to address two issues. First, what I call an atheist’s moral imperative. Second, social atheism — that is, how to be an atheist in a Christian society.
I’ve already written a blog post about this topic, and I’d like to encourage you to read it now if you have not done so before. That article focused on one primary part of what I consider to be every atheist’s moral imperative. I believe that individually, each atheist in America has the obligation to be open about their lack of belief. First, consider why atheists feel the need to conceal their beliefs:
- Family – As I mentioned in the linked article, religion is hereditary, and for those of us who grew up in religious families, it’s often difficult — and sometimes devastating — to be openly atheist. Family relationships often deteriorate, or become antagonistic, or in extreme cases, dissolve entirely. We all have a desire to be close with our family, and it pains us to do something that hurts them. I submit to you, gentle atheist, that by not being openly atheist, you are likely to cause more harm than if you pretend otherwise. This is one of the ways that religion propagates — by silencing dissent. Have you ever thought about how many other members of your family might have left religion if only they’d known that they wouldn’t be totally alone? Can you really justify your own desire for acceptance as more important than giving other people a reasonable chance to think for themselves? How many children in your family would benefit from knowing that they are not alone in asking questions about the absurdity of religion? How many could be helped by seeing the world as it really is, instead of being presented the facade that everybody is religious?
- Social – Many atheists fear that their social networks will break down, or that they will be ostracized if they are openly atheist. In many cases, they are absolutely right. When I became openly atheist, I lost virtually all of my friends. This is exactly why atheists have an obligation to come out. Religion is dangerous because it silences dissent and promotes the illusion that everybody is religious. If you recognize that as true, then are you not being hypocritical and allowing other people to be trapped by religion by not standing up for yourself? The good news, of course, is that there are a LOT of atheists in America. By some estimates, one out of every eight people, on average, self identifies as atheist, agnostic, or non-religious. Think about that. That’s one out of eight who openly identify as non-religious. If you are in the closet, and you recognize the power of religion to stifle dissent, doesn’t it stand to reason that the real number of atheists is much higher? Don’t you owe it to them to help them also come out? Also, don’t you owe it to yourself to find friends who accept you for you are, instead of having to pretend to be like them in order to be accepted? I, for one, have been immensely happy since finding a group of atheist friends — much more happy than I was before, despite having to endure the loss of friendships.
- Work – Many atheists are afraid of professional repercussions from coming out. I admit to being one of them. In my line of work, my customer base is very representative of the culture in general, which means that a lot of them are Christians. I suggest that there are two very good reasons to not pretend to be theist because of work. (I make an important distinction here.) First, there are anti-discrimination laws in America, and for good reason. No workplace ought to be able to enforce any religious code on its workers, and in fact, religion and work should never mix. If you are at a workplace where your atheism being discovered would cause you problems, then you are at a workplace that needs to be hit with a lawsuit. Workplace discrimination is wrong, whether it’s because of race, religion, sex, or sexual preference. I do not advocate “preaching atheism” at work. It’s not the place for religion or politics. But, if you are not coming out socially for fear of your workplace, then there is a problem with your workplace.
- Passifism – Some people genuinely don’t want to rock the boat. They have a nice life, and they don’t see religion as a problem. To these people, I say: ”Take off your blinders.” Either you’re lying about not seeing religion as a problem, or you really have a problem seeing reality. First, read THIS ARTICLE, and then realize that in-the-closet atheists are in exactly the same position as religious moderates. If they are not actively standing up against religious fanatacism, legislation, and indoctrination, then they are enabling it. They are literally allowing it to happen, and are therefore responsible. If you are an atheist who believes theworst parts of religion are bad, and you are doing nothing, then you are responsible for the worst parts of religion. The existence of the somewhat not so crazy moderate Christians does not excuse you from addressing the nut jobs who are causing real harm in the world.
Now, it’s one thing to say that atheists have a moral imperative to come out. It’s quite another to know how to do it. I’ve been openly atheist for a decade now, and I’ve only recently become comfortable with how I handle religion in public. One of the defining moments for me was the last time I was called for jury duty. After addressing the jury before the beginning of the trial, the judge swore us all in at once. He read the oath that we were to take, and asked if there was any of us who felt he could not in good conscience take the oath. As it ended with “so help me God,” I knew that I could not in good conscience take the oath, but I hesitated. If I made a stink about it and asked for a non-religious oath, would that undermine my credibility with the jury? Would it cause me to be struck? My moment of hesitation cost me. I left the courtroom feeling ashamed for not standing up for myself.
I have come to realize that there is a fundamental truth about social situations. If someone puts me in a position of being threatened by religion, and I object politely, in a socially acceptable way, I have done my part. I need not preach, nor get angry, nor tell them how horrible they are for putting me in the position. I simply need to speak up for myself. As an example, a few years ago, the following conversation took place at a Thanksgiving dinner:
Host: You are the guest of honor (speaking to me), would you like to say grace?
Me: No, thank you very much, though.
Host: (obviously slightly flustered) Oh, well, it doesn’t have to be fancy or anything. Just whatever you feel.
(I’d like to interject at this point that the polite social thing for the host to do would be to accept my statement at face value and not press. However, he pressed.)
Me: I’m sorry, I don’t pray. I am not a Christian.
(Notice that I didn’t even say that I was atheist. I just told him plainly and politely that I was not in his religion. )
Host: Oh… um… well, I’ll pray then…
The thing is, when he prayed, there was an obvious bit about the Lord Jesus speaking to the heart of non-believers and showing them the love of the one true god, blah, blah, blah, blah. Who is in the wrong here? Is it me, for politely being myself, or is it the believer who did not accept my refusal and then attempted to make a public spectacle of me at his table after inviting me into his house?
Over the years, I’ve learned to endure these moments, for they are usually trivial. Once I got over feeling that I was somehow the cause of other people’s embarrassment, and realized that it was not I, butthey who were causing their own consternation, it became easy for me to be at peace with myself. I do not hide my atheism, nor do I preach it. I simply stand up for myself and demand simple respect.
In my experience, the fear of religious retribution is usually worse than the actual retribution itself. Sure, there are bosses who will treat atheists unfairly, and social groups who will not hang out with them, but for the most part, we still live in a country where people are free to practice whatever religion — or lack of religion — they choose. I cannot fathom why an atheist would choose to practice what he does not believe in, especially given how easy it is to politely decline and say, “Thanks, but no. I am not Christian.”
It’s such a simple phrase, but it is immensely powerful. First, it openly breaks the power of religion to silence dissent. Once you have uttered those magic words, your peers have the choice of treating you fairly, and being “Good Christians” in the process, or of treating you poorly and being not only in the wrong socially, but being hypocrites as well. ”Love thy neighbor,” my ass. For too long, Christians have lived under the delusion that America is a Christian nation, and that their ways are the norm. It is time they are shown otherwise. America is a constitutionally neutral nation with a lot of Christians, but there are many other beliefs — the second most popular belief system in America behind Christianity is non-theism. All we have to do is politely stand our ground. If we do this, we will have the law on our side, but more than this, we will help to change society for the better.
Sure, I believe that we ought to do more. There are lots of laws that are religiously based. The debate on stem cell research and cloning needs to end. Intelligent Design needs to be struck from all curricula. Religious tests for politics must be abolished in practice as well as in print. Home-schooling by religious zealots must be reined in and they must be held accountable for teaching science. I could go on, but I will not. I wish that all of my fellow atheists had the same passion for actively changing the world that I have. I realize, however, that it’s simply not practical to ask everyone to be an activist. It is, I believe, practical to ask for the simple support of numbers. If every atheist in America simply stopped pretending to approve of or participate in religion, it would be a lot easier for us activists to get things done. Help us help you. All you have to do is remember the magic words: ”I’m sorry, no. I’m not Christian.”